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Ocellated Turkey (photo credit: National Geographic)

Everyone is familiar with the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and its domestic descendants.  The wild turkey is a highly successful species which ranges across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. There is however another turkey species, the ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata, which is native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico–where it lives in the dense tropical forests.   The bird looks similar to the familiar wild turkey, but it is half the size or smaller (females range up to 6 pounds, while males weight up to 11 pounds).  The ocellated turkey has brilliant plumage and skin.  Its feathers are iridescent green, shining copper, and grey-blue.  The male turkey sports a pattern of peacock-like eyes on his tail.  Neither gender have “beards” protruding through their breast feathers (a familiar feature in their northern relatives).  Ocellated turkeys also have brilliant yellow, orange, and red nodules on their bright blue heads (!).  Males have a crown of brilliant nodules behind their snood.  They have long red legs to run through the jungle.  Like their northern counterparts they have a variety of magnificent vocalizations.

Close-up of a hen's face

The turkeys are secretive in their tropical jungles and their ecology is not fully understood.  Once upon a time, the ocellated turkey existed in both domesticated and wild forms (just like familiar Meleagris gallopavo exists for us today).  They were farmed by the Maya people of the Yucatan who used them as table fowl and as sacrifices.  Their name in the Maya tongue is “ucutz il chican” which means, um, “ocellated turkey” (maybe my Mayan readers can help me produce a finer translation).  Ancient paintings show that the splendid feathers of the ocellated turkey were a major component of headdresses and high fashion for nobles.  Yet as the Maya empire declined and jungles stole over the great temples, the farmbirds slipped from human control back into the wild.

A Maya mural at San Bartolo from 100 BC shows the maize god spilling an ocellated turkey’s blood on the cosmic tree. Two turkeys are tied behind him. (Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National Geographic)

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